The Big East, as we knew and loved it, is basically gone, especially where basketball is concerned.
It will probably live on, in one form or another, with a coalition of Catholic schools and others, but one of the most distinctive and important parts of college sports is never going to return to what is was before Louisville’s victory in the men’s basketball Big East Tournament last week.
A lot went into its destruction, most notably the rising financial importance of football and its revenue streams that come from being tied to the right institutions and the right bowl games. As a consequence, a real cultural touchstone from my youth has disappeared.
It is difficult to overstate the impact that the Big East, which was formed in 1979, had on a generation of East Coast kids. Even in Maryland, generally ACC country, the Georgetown-Syracuse tilts had just as much, if not more, sway on the playgrounds than the Duke-North Carolina battles. I didn’t care about Virginia or Georgia Tech — I followed Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Villanova.
For Big East fans, the rest of the country watched soft basketball. We watched games with six fouls for each player instead of five, not just battles but sieges of attrition, with icons like Alonzo Mourning fighting for position in the lane.
When you played on the playground, you didn’t call fouls, and if someone did, they got between five and nine weird stares. In rec leagues, your team played full-court defense until you built a lead to where the league rules forbade it. In pickup games, you would hack someone into a fence if they tried to dunk on you, so next time they would think a little harder before driving.
Dirty? In the grand scheme of things, yeah. But that’s how the Big East fans played, from the guys who went on to be high school stars to the guys like me, whose love of the sport far exceeded any talent we had. The game was not built on three-pointers or alley-oops. It was built on toughness, defense, rebounding and finding new ways of using your elbows.
In the pro ranks, this type of basketball did reach some shocking levels of grotesquerie in the unwatchable Pat Riley Knicks years, but the blue collar basketball didn’t curdle as much in the college ranks. Maybe it was due to a bigger, rotating pool of players, or the new life injected in the Big East when Notre Dame and others joined in the mid-1990s or mid-2000s.
I was ecstatic when Notre Dame joined the Big East. I grew up a Notre Dame football and Georgetown basketball fan, and was happy I could transfer all my allegiances to South Bend without losing the conference. For someone who is a fierce proponent of ND’s football independence, it is odd to admit that part of me wishes more that the men’s team had won a Big East title than a national title.
That’s because you can’t ever truly escape who you were as a kid and what you idolized.
A national title given away in April? Please. The winner of real basketball is crowned in Madison Square Garden in March.
Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.